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Getting the Best Seat on the Plane

Young woman floating in an airplane cabinNot all seats are created equal! Your seat assignment determines your order for boarding the plane, which overhead bins to select, and how comfortable you will be during your flight. If your parents are visiting the USA or you are a travel companion, reserving comfortable seats can improve everyone’s travel experience.

Your seat assignment affects your boarding, amenities and comfort

Airlines generally board a plane by class and then zone. Zone 1 is the early boarders like first class, people who need assistance, people who need more time to board and elite frequent flyers. First class is generally in the front of the plane. Other early boarders might be elsewhere in the cabin. Sometimes you can purchase an early boarding option or a first class upgrade.

After that if the airplane is small they usually seat from back to front. Zone 2 is nearest the tail of the aircraft; each subsequent zone is closer to the front of the plane.

On my last flight from SFO to Philadelphia on an A321, and from Philadelphia to Bangor Maine on an Embraer E-170, I was in zone 5 both segments of the flight on the way to Bangor.

Travel for cheap in first class?

Sometimes a last-minute upgrade saves you in the long run. On the way back to the Bay Area when checking in online the night before the flight, I had the opportunity to upgrade to first class for the first leg of the flight, so I did the math and decided to make the upgrade (seat 3A). Let me explain how paying $66 was a good deal for an approximate two hour flight.

  • Waived checked luggage fee $25 (one bag) to $50 (two bags)
  • Snack $2 to 4
  • Drink $6 (glass of wine)

Because I was checking one piece of luggage ($25) the upgrade really cost $41 minus the drinks and snack. For me paying about $20 per hour for comfort and a more available toilet was a good deal!

The airplane was an E-170 and each spacious row of first class seats had one pair of seats and one single seat. I sat by myself, and it was very nice. The other perks of upgrading to first class were: early boarding, waived checked luggage fee for two pieces of luggage, a snack, and unlimited drinks (including wine).

On the longer segment of the flight (PHL to SFO), however, the upgrade to first class was significantly more as were the premium seats, so I kept my window seat in coach class.

Overhead bins

If your flight is likely to be full and people have many carry-on bags, you might want to pay an extra fee to board early and have your pick of the overhead bins before general boarding begins.

Tip: Put your carry-on bag under the seat in front of you (for security and easy access). If you must use an overhead bin, put your bag in a bin ahead of you in airplanes that board and debark from the front of the plane. When exiting the plane, you don’t want to become stuck trying to go against the traffic flow to get your bag.

Learn about your seat assignment ahead of time with Seat Guru

If you are reserving a seat or when you check in online with your airline carrier and you are considering an upgrade (premium seat or first class) you need to know what you are buying. The seat map on the airline carrier’s website might or might not show the details like:

  • Seats between sections or after cabin dividers might have fold out trays in the arms of the seats. For larger people that style of tray might not be comfortable. From personal experience I do not like working from a laptop with the screen so close to my face. When I work on a plane I prefer the tray tables that fold down from the seat ahead of me. Also, these seats typically have no seats in front of them which means no carry-on bag storage at your seat. All carry-on bags must be stowed in the overhead bins.
  • Seats that do not recline at all or only partially.
  • Bulkheads that might prevent you from moving your legs around.
  • Some seats have a lot of leg room and are a great for tall people or people who have restless legs.
  • Some seats have limited leg room because of audio equipment boxes.
  • Seats near the toilets or galley tend to be noisy with lot of foot traffic.
  • Some overhead bins are not usable because of networking equipment and other supplies. So, if you want to stow your carry-on above your seat, make sure that the bin is available.

A website that has more details about the airplanes and the seats can help you decide. I use SeatGuru by TripAdvisor to help me decide which seats will give me the best access and leg room. SeatGuru also give lots of other information about each airplane and even contains user reviews about individual seats.

Travel companions and seat assignments

Sometimes you can use the upgrade system to get side-by-side seats with your trip companion. It’s worth it to many people (me included) to sit next to someone you know and probably have more in common with than a total stranger. What if your seat neighbor falls asleep on you, snores loudly or is too noisy or worse— too nosey?

Fly Confident!

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